Rebels Begin Evacuation of Syria’s Last Besieged Enclave

Hundreds of rebels left the last major besieged opposition enclave in Syria on Monday, with thousands more expected to follow, responding to months of pressure by a Russian-backed government offensive, the army, rebels and residents said as quoted by Reuters. A first convoy of buses with hundreds of rebels and their families, accompanied by Russian military police, departed from the city of Rastan, starting a week-long evacuation from towns and villages in an enclave between the cities of Homs and Hama.

Rebels representing several major Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions capitulated to a Russian-imposed deal after marathon talks with Russian generals on May 2 in Dar al Kabira town in the northern Homs countryside. The deal forced them to hand in heavy weapons and gave those rebels not ready to make peace with the army the option of leaving with light arms to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Draft dodgers would have a six-month reprieve.

Terms were hammered out at marathon talks between Free Syria Army factions and Russian generals in the Homs countryside on Wednesday, BBC reports. Rebel heavy weapons are being surrendered but rebel fighters are being allowed to leave with light arms, on buses going to rebel-controlled Idlib province in the north-east.

Russian military police are meant to guard the buses and protect the mainly Sunni Muslim civilians who remain in the former enclave from sectarian revenge attacks by Alawites living nearby. The enclave, which includes the town of Rastan, was heavily bombed by Russian aircraft before the deal was agreed, according to local people.

“They left rebels with no option after bombing civilians and giving them no choice either to submit or obliterate their areas and make civilians pay the price,” Abul Aziz al Barazi, one of the civilian opposition negotiators, told Reuters.

The evacuation is expected to take two days and see thousands of people leave on the buses, which snaked out of Rastan on Monday, Mena FN adds. State news agency SANA reported yesterday that more than 60 buses carrying hundreds of rebels and their families were ready to depart for the north. Images by a local photographer showed Syrian adults and children, some carrying luggage, at a departure point where a line of buses waited to transfer them out of Rastan. Similar evacuation deals typically see the buses gather together at a single collection point before departing together as a convoy.

Syrian state television said the operation would take place over two days. The rebel fighters are expected to head to the hardliners-controlled province of Idlib in the northwest or the rebel-held town of Jarabulus, in neighbouring Aleppo province. The deal also provided for the surrender of rebels’ heavy weapons to Syrian troops and allied Russian forces, the return of government institutions to the three towns, and the reopening of a key highway. That highway runs from the capital Damascus, through Homs, and onto second city Aleppo, in the north. Securing it has been a major target for the regime’s military operations.

The area in Homs was part of a ‘de-escalation zone agreed one year ago by opposition supporter Turkey and regime allies Iran and Russia. The four zones initially saw a reduction in shelling but violence has since escalated. It is the third such transfer deal for Homs province, after thousands were bussed out in a pair of agreements for the city itself in recent years. Such negotiated withdrawals have brought swathes of territory back under government control during the country’s seven-year war.